Once more unto the breach …
The meme of Easter as stolen from the spring celebrations of the Pagan Goddess Eostre was alive and well this year. I can’t spend much time with this, but do hope somehow, somewhere, what emerges here is useful.
Now, I am not whitewashing the “pagan” antecedents and influences on early and later Christian traditions. Everything (us included) has antecedents. It’s just the reality is far more complex than the “Christians stole it from the Pagans” meme suggests. And, of course, this is not to denigrate modern Paganism at all, simply to suggest that memes like this do Paganism no justice. Paganism does not need to define itself against Christianity.
Reference to the Goddess Eostre is found in a single source, De Temporum Ratione (On the Reckoning of Time) written by the Venerable Bede (672/3-735 CE) in 725 CE. He writes:
“Hrethmonath [March] is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time. Eosturmonath [April] has a name which is now translated ‘Paschal month’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.” (https://online.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/doi/book/10.3828/978-0-85323-693-1 )
And with that the source material dries up. Modern scholars of medieval studies are uncertain about Eostre’s existence:
“It is not possible to say, as it is of Woden, for example, that the Anglo-Saxons definitely worshipped a goddess called Eostre, who was probably concerned with the spring or the dawn.” (Cusack, Carole. “The Goddess Eostre:Bede’s Text and Contemporary Pagan Tradition(s).”Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, vol. 9, no. 1, 2007: 28)
With such uncertainty about the historical existence of Eostre (which does not negate Her existence for modern Neo-Pagans), we simply cannot assume Her presence and celebrations had any influence on Easter at all. There remains a possible linguistic connection, given the etymology provided by Bede.
However, a more crucial stumbling block to any possible influence emerges when we simply examine the dates. Pascha (Easter) was celebrated by the early church by the mid second century at the latest. The dating was contested between different churches and a computational method endorsed by the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. This is centuries before the conversion of the Saxon kingdoms which began through missions sent by Pope Gregory I in 596/7 CE. The ergo here is easy : if Christianity celebrated Easter before it moved into lands where Eostre may have been worshipped, then She cannot have been the source for the celebration.
It remains logically feasible that the Easter celebrations throughout medieval Europe could have been dramatically influenced and changed by Christianity’s encounter with Eostre (if She existed). However, the evidence is clear that this did not occur, and the central motifs of Easter remained (and remain) intact and unaffected by Christianity’s expansion into the Germanic lands. This is hardly surprising since, even from Bede’s account, there are no motifs attached to Eostre which could have influenced anything at all. So, as wonderful as Eostre may have been, and is for modern Pagans, it is absolutely clear She had no influence on Easter at all. We are free, as modern Pagans do, to develop wonderful and meaningful spiritual connections from scholars’ speculation on the existence and symbolism of Eostre. But we are not free to assert Her celebrations are the historical foundations of Easter.
But the date …
Connected with the Easter stemming from Eostre meme are two other issues: the timing of Easter being derived from the Spring Equinox and thereby having connection with a range of near eastern dawn Goddesses and Jesus as one of several dying and rising near eastern deities.
The existence and importance of dawn Goddesses in the ancient near east is not at issue here. What is important is how these Goddesses and their motifs may have influenced the date and celebration of Easter. The evidence is again clear: the date for the new Christian Pascha derives from the Jewish celebration of Passover. Passover is usually based the Jewish calendar which ultimately comes from the Equinox. That does not however make it Pagan or show any link to dawn Goddesses. And when we think about it, this is obvious – a time of the year or of the day has no inherent religious significance to the exclusion of other religions.
Passover was a spring festival and some sources show its connection to the ripening of barley. Does all this make it Pagan? Only if the theological interpretation of a festival date influenced by ripening barley and the Equinox is Pagan itself. And for Jews, at the period in question, it was not. The One God of Israel caused the ripening of the barley.
The Jewish religion at the time of Christ was monotheistic. It was not always exclusively so, and references to the divine assembly and other deities remain in the Jewish scriptures. But the temple tradition that Jesus encountered was monotheistic. So, for example, the Pagan theological interpretation of the Sun as a deity who caused the ripening of the barley, was long removed from Judaism at this point. The sun and moon were labelled as the greater and lesser lights in the writing of Genesis, because the Hebrew words designating them were also the names of solar and lunar deities in the ancient near east. This monotheistic hermeneutic ran through the entire Jewish religion of the time.
So, the question then becomes, is there evidence that motifs and symbols derived from ancient near eastern dawn Goddesses, despite the monotheism of Judaism, influenced the celebration of Passover, which in turn influenced the Christian Pascha?
The history, symbols and purpose of Passover do show non-Jewish and non-monotheistic influences and antecedents including, probably, apotropaic magic. However, and this is the crucial point, by the time of Christ all of these had been reworked and subsumed into the core motif of the liberation of the Jewish people from Egypt by the One God of Israel. And this is the tradition the early Christians grew up in. As they later developed Paschal celebrations to commemorate Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection at the time of Passover, it was this monotheism that was reworked and developed upon. Not Pagan antecedents already lost to the tradition.
Dying and Rising
The popular and academic spread of the concept of the dying and rising deity owes a lot to the work of folklorist James George Frazer (1854 – 1941 CE). His articulation of Jesus as another of these deities was part of the project to disenfranchise Christian exceptionalism (not that there is anything wrong with that). Since his death, most scholars no longer find the category and concept as universal or as useful as he promoted it to be.
Christians will also point out the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, as attested by the majority of scholars. Of course, one may affirm that the dying and rising God motif, if we want to continue to use a flawed concept, was later affixed to the historical events, creating the myth of Christ’s death and resurrection. The purpose of this affirmation? Like Frazer, it is to remove Christian exceptionalism and frame Christ as simply another near eastern deity.
If we were, however, to posit the dying and rising God motif as abroad and alive in Palestine and the near east during the time of Christ, there is no evidence that the followers of these other Gods saw their deities in the way Christians saw Christ. That is, within the temporal and historical events of the day and as the Incarnation of a monotheistic God. All the other Gods within this disputed concept were seen as part of a larger polytheistic pantheon. Their myths were not placed within ordinary time and space as part of the historical narrative. These are key points of difference.
At the very least, we can say that the fact that Christians saw Christ as different to other Gods makes Christians different. Cos no other Pagans saw their Gods in the same way. And it is this view of the Christ as different to other Gods, and the insistence of the promulgation of this view, that led Christianity to become the dominant religion of the Empire, as Bart Ehrman explores in his wonderful The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. We may not like this, at all, at all, but it seems to be the actual historical reality.
Easter eggs are often assumed to be a pagan symbol and practice adopted or stolen by “the Christians”. The idea of something being “stolen” requires (1) a thief, (2) a victim of theft and (3) a conscious program of theft. This would require identifying a discreet group of Christians in early Christianity who targeted pagan religions to plunder their symbols and practices. There is no evidence of this. In reality, the presence of older religious symbols and forms in a newer religion is most often because of organic cultural diffusion and syncretism. There is no theft involved.
Eggs were part of African and Ancient Near Eastern religious symbolism prior to Christianity. It seems clear however that early Christians in the Mesopotamian region used the egg in unique ways to symbolize the tomb of Christ and, through dying, the colour of his blood. This was the prototype of the “Easter egg”. So, yes, an association with older “pagan” motifs of death and rebirth, but uniquely linked to and drawn into the central Christian mystery. This, to me, makes the egg, as it is used in Christianity, Christian, not a Pagan interloper. Of course, the egg when used in Paganism is Pagan … and when eaten is a nutritious breakfast 🙂 Thanks.